29 April 2021|Eco & Ethics, Latest Posts, Launching a business
By Charlotte Staerck. Handbag Clinic is the result of two passions colliding; a life-long obsession with handbags (mine!) and a family legacy of leather restoration. We are the leading authority in sustainable luxury and longest established luxe restoration service in the UK, pre-dating all new upcoming services and restore around 700 bags each month.
I’ve been obsessed with handbags forever. I’m not sure why, I grew up in a tiny village outside of Newcastle, and my mum wasn’t interested at all. I remember, when I got a Saturday job, I’d stare at them through the windows — and, as soon I could, I bought my first brand-named bag; a cream Luella tote at 18 years old, which I thought was the best thing ever. However, it soon got covered in dye transfer, from my jeans. And, a colleague told me there was a local company, The Furniture Clinic, that did repairs. She gave me their number, but I lost the piece of paper. If I had gone, it turns out I’d have met my future husband, Ben, two years earlier than I did — at a bar in Newcastle. Ben had built up a business with his father cleaning and restoring furniture and leather household items since 2004 and, by the time I met him, it had grown from a small online family operation to a thriving global business with a team of 75 people and a network of distributors around the world, still operated from its North East headquarters.
At the time, I was on a fast-track career path having risen through local government ranks to be appointed as a Senior Buyer of pharmaceutical and medical equipment for the NHS. I was fiercely independent and my career was going from strength to strength but my passion was always luxury handbags – I would spend ages browsing the preowned market and buying and selling at the right time so I could covet the latest It bag – something that’s now been coined as circular fashion. I’d work with Ben to protect the bags and restore them to ensure they held or even increased their value when selling them on. It was incredible what he and his team could do – from removing stubborn stains and scratches to improving colour loss and repairing broken zips, worn edges, split piping and reinforcing shape and stretched straps. Nothing seemed to be unsalvageable. I couldn’t believe how profitable it was. For example, I made £300 on a damaged velvet Gucci cross-body bag.
Ben and I observed the increasing number of handbags that were being sent to Furniture Clinic for restoration and I encouraged Ben to officially incorporate Handbag Clinic as its own independent luxury handbag offshoot in 2013 – all still operated through our ecommerce platform at the time. We opened the doors to our first store on King’s Road in 2015. Restoration was still very much the heart of the business but we had so much retail space and Ben wanted to use this for something more. This was when I had my lightbulb moment. We were having dinner one night, and I suggested integrating buying and selling preowned luxury handbags as a resale operation in our stores. No one else was doing it on a large scale, at the time. Nor were they combining restoration with resale which enables customers to fetch the highest possible price for their bags. There was a clear gap in the market. So I decided to leave my career and board Handbag Clinic as a buyer to develop the preowned resale operation. At this point we opened the Newcastle store which was designed to also showcase our amazing range of preowned designer handbags as well as facilitate restoration consultations.
Ben had seen my addiction, knew I was onto something, and that I’d be the person to do it. So, I started heavily researching for about a year, until I knew everything there was to possibly know about handbags and the preowned market. Ben split his time between Furniture Clinic and raising investment capital for Handbag Clinic whilst supporting on strategy. I took charge of the day-to-day operations, developing a new system from scratch, working out which brands were popular, sourcing and photographing products. It really spiralled from there. Within that first year, we launched the integrated offering of ‘Buy, Sell, Restore’ and, in addition to our Chelsea and Newcastle store, we also opened another store in Leeds, followed by rollout into Europe (Monaco) and the Middle East (Qatar). We quickly experienced rapid growth, growing as much as 186% in six months.
Today, we operate through a chain of four stores, including our flagship store on Kings Road in London, Leeds and Newcastle. Plus, we have affiliations with several luxury brands including Jimmy Choo and Aspinal of London. We also have Handbag Clinic franchise stores in Europe and the Middle East. We are the best kept secret of fashion editors, stylists and celebrities such as Poppy Delevingne, Storm Keating, Heidi Range and Frankie Bridge – plus the Made In Chelsea crew who are all regular customers. Over the years we’ve had offshoots in Harvey Nichols and most recently launched in Fenwick. We are the trusted restoration choice for high end luxury brands such as Aspinal of London and Jimmy Choo. As a one-stop-shop for sustainable luxury we repair, authenticate, buy and sell the world’s most coveted bags. Our mission is to preserve the past whilst mindfully reinventing the future and we aim to have customers falling back in love with their handbags all over again.
Prices vary on each bag but start a £15 and go up to £650 — and our most popular service is the full restoration, from £255. We’ve handled over £50 million of bags, and our turnover was £1 million last year. All of our bags come with a 12-month warranty for manufacturing faults, plus we authenticate them, so there are no fakes. And, it’s eco too, reducing vast amounts of waste. In addition to running Handbag Clinic, I also consult as a valuation and authentication expert to leading auction houses Christie’s, Sotheby’s and the V&A museum.
Despite the pandemic, which meant we had to temporarily close our stores, we experienced record growth during the height of the pandemic (April /May 2020) with an increase of 500% year on year. Overall, this is now 306% year on year, which still represents rapid and continued growth for Handbag Clinic. I think the pandemic has really heightened the sustainability trend and made a lot of people reconsider their values with many questioning how they can enjoy fashion in a more responsible way. People have become much more conscious of the life and quality of their handbags or shoes and the impact waste is having on the planet. Buying a preowned item and using it for another nine months can actually reduce its water and carbon footprint by 20 to 30 percent. Whilst high streets are collapsing and sales of non-essential items have plummeted during the pandemic, resale and auction sites selling luxury and vintage handbags, particularly Hermes and Chanel and Louis Vuitton, are thriving because they are considered a safer investment than stocks and shares. Because of their often-appreciating value, luxury handbags are one of the most sought-after items to buy and sell on the preowned market. They are seen as collector’s items and, in the face of economic uncertainty, a sound investment that can be passed down through generations.
The most valuable restoration that we’ve ever repaired at Handbag Clinic is a £140,000 Hermes Birkin crocodile skin bad with diamond hardware. We repair everything from unbranded vintage treasures with huge sentimental value right through to iconic brands such as Hermes, Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Our most popular service is a full Chanel restoration.
I always say, one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure. You wouldn’t believe what people have in their wardrobes that they thought was worthless. So many people throw away bags! I don’t dare tell them how much they could have saved… We can bring most bags back to life. Don’t bin it the second it’s broken: stitchwork, straps, metal work, it can all be repaired. So if you didn’t have a clear-out in lockdown, now’s the time!
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